Fall classic: Floods or no floods, the Catskill Mountains are still tops

September 20, 2011
by David Landsel

To this New Yorker, an annual drive along Route 28, through the heart of Catskill Park, is as essential to the autumn experience as pints of pumpkin ale, or pick-your-own apples. It’s something my family has been doing since I was a little kid, bouncing around in the back of various boxy, uncomfortable Toyotas, all the way from Kingston to my grandmother’s house in Mount Tremper. 

The drive, as anyone who has done it knows, is perhaps not the world’s most perfect. There are more quiet and more idyllic roads in the Catskill region. There are towns to which time and economies and planners have been kinder. But at any time of year, when you look up, at the mountains, to the sky, it gets pretty magical. Now, as the leaves start to turn, the views are simply stunning. 

The Catskills, subtly wonderful as they might be, can also be a place that too many skip past. It’s easy to get distracted—we do, after all, have an immense number of distractions when it comes to weekends in this part of the world, as befits a city that thrives on having too much choice. 

There’s one problem, though, when you take things for granted—you never know when it all might just go away, without warning. Like many other natives of the region who had long ago moved on elsewhere, I watched in the days after Hurricane Irene, horrified to see the images of flooding that had ravaged much of the real estate along the Route 28 corridor. Upset turned to frustration, as the local media started to ignore the area, spending more time talking about places like Vermont with better public relations machines, as if the Catskills, my old, stubborn, stuck-in-the-past Catskills, simply didn’t matter. Tired of waiting for the whole story, I got in a car on a sunny day last week, and went to see for myself. 

I started in Phoenicia, the town that held the most memories. Pizza at Brio’s, spring mud in the parking lot next to Riccardiella Realty, pancakes at Sweet Sue’s. These were the places and things that rushed to mind as the news first came across the wire. I needed to know that it all was still there. The southern entrance to town, the one that everyone uses, was closed; the bridge across the creek—now in spots widened to more than twice its original size—had been severely damaged, perhaps beyond repair; workmen were clearing the last of the debris it had collected; its guard rail lay twisted, hanging off to one side. 

But this was just one entrance to town out of four—by the time I showed up, the other three were open, as if nothing had happened. I held my breath, driving in, and parked, looking around. Main Street was filthy with mud, but walking up and down the street, I couldn’t find one business I remembered that wasn’t open. Sweet Sue’s was back in business, Brio’s too, some new stores I didn’t even remember—nice ones, too—had their doors open as well. What, I wondered, was the big fuss all about?

And then I kept driving. While places like Phoenicia and Roxbury and Woodstock and Mt. Tremper and Andes got off easy, Arkville, Margaretville and Fleischmanns didn’t. Particularly Margaretville, where I found a good third of the downtown business district—maybe even closer to half—out of commission. But for every business (the Cheese Barrel) that will need to rebuild, there was another (Binnekill Square Restaurant) up and running. Tough as times ahead may be for some, on balance, to say the region is out of commission is false. Nature may have done a number, but this is the Catskills, where nature and man (and the Department of Environmental Protection) have been doing battle forever—this is just the latest episode. Look up in the sky, it’s still the same beautiful place. Just like it probably always will be. 

For updates on the region post-Irene, lock it in to watershedpost.com. 

From Kingston on up to Andes, the top spots to eat, drink and stay 

WHERE TO STAY No question — The Roxbury. Greg Henderson and Joe Massa run not only the region’s most fun hotel, but also one of its tightest ships. New Yorkers of many years and fully versed in what exactly the art of providing hospitality entails (unlike far too many lodging establishments in the mountains), here you get what you pay for, and then some. Room decor is legendarily weird, but comfort is always assured. A new wing has upped the ante, with some seriously nutso interiors that pay homage to everything from Star Trek to The Wizard of Oz. What began as a curiosity has blossomed into one of Upstate New York’s most charming hotels. If you haven’t been yet, you must. A full-service spa has also been added, should you require such a thing (from $99, theroxburymotel.com ). 

THREE TOP DINNERS Right on Route 28, not far from the Slide Mountain turnoff (now there’s a road that’ll be under repairs for awhile, jeez) is where you’ll find one of the region’s top restaurants, The Peekamoose, a serious spot for food and wine and cocktails beloved by people who get the need for that sort of thing. If that’s you, go. Then go again. They have a restaurant and a tap room, depending on your mood (8373 Route 28, peekamooserestaurant.com ). In often obnoxiously touristy Woodstock, Cucina is an on-point, up-to-the-minute rustic Italian joint in a grand old farmhouse that’s seen many a culinary indignity over the years; this is the one that washes away all bad memories, with artisanal pizzas and pastas and other fun stuff. Don’t miss it (109 Mill Hill Road, cucinawoodstock.com). And of course, next door in Bearsville, there’s the classic Bear Cafe, which still charms (295 Tinker St., bearcafe.com ). 

A FEW GREAT LUNCHES Tucked away behind the general store in pleasant Andes, the Cha Cha Hut BBQ is, food-wise, one of the greatest things to happen to Route 28 in a good little while. Farm-to-table barbecue is the ethic here; the owners are ex-Brooklynites with a passion for precision. The smoked brisket will likely rock your world. Do not miss this place (103 Main St., chachahut.com ). In Fleischmanns, you have two outstanding choices, surprising for a town that many avoid. Sure, it’s a weird little dump of a burg, but they do eat good — Mi Lupita is a grocery store with a full-service Mexican lunch counter in the back; the quesadillas flor de calabaza (squash blossom) off the comida criolla menu are one of the best things you can get on a plate around here a few bucks, except maybe the stellar slices over at Fleischmanns Pizza Company — those are pretty damn good, too (Mi Lupita is at 967 Main St.; Fleischmanns Pizza Co. is across the street, next to the old movie theater). 

BEST BREAKFASTS There are of course those gigantic pancakes at Sweet Sue’s in Phoenicia (49 Main St.), but don’t miss the much better Bread & Breakfast, housed in a red caboose in Arkville — this local fave has been a top gathering place for the post-Irene cleanup crowd, keeping the atmosphere lively (43285 Route 28). Both open early on weekends — Sue’s at 8, Bread & Breakfast at 7. 

BEST PIT STOP The only big city (and one uses the term loosely) attached to Catskill Park has never done anything with any great speed; see Kingston once, and you’ve pretty much seen it enough to last you a decade, or perhaps longer. Until recently, that is. In the city’s historic Uptown area, you now have a handful of really fun reasons to make a pit stop, from famous-in-NYC butcher Fleischer’s (307 Wall Street, fleishers.com ) to the wee-bit-Brooklyn Boitson’s restaurant (47 N. Front Street, boitsons.com ). But first, drinks. For beer, it’s the brewpub at Keegan Ales (20 St. James Street, keeganales.com ); for something more genteel, it’s the Stockade Tavern, an warm and friendly Fair Street room for craft cocktails, across from the historic Senate House, a relic from the Revolutionary War era, when Kingston served as the state capital (313 Fair Street, stockadetavern.com ).